When it comes to the timely transport of lab test results – those little test tubes critical for any accurate health diagnosis – it’s a bumpy road ahead. This year, Canadian medical labs will conduct more than 440 million tests and procedures, according to the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science. That’s an average of 12.6 lab tests for every Canadian. This means there are a lot of very busy labs out there!
For Canadians to remain healthy, each little test has to make its way to analysis in a timely fashion. But a tidal wave of demand coupled with a lack of essential funding is creating worrying roadblocks. Something’s got to give to get our lab tests back in motion.
Testing laboratories today face three main challenges in the timely delivery of patient care:
- Rising volume: The volume of medical lab testing is going up as the population grows, with annual increases of 6% in some provinces. Lab test numbers are expected to increase substantially over the next 20 years, as the Canadian population ages
- Shrinking budgets: As demand for testing rises, so too does the pressure on labs to do more with less money. Provincial governments are clawing back, offering less public funding. And private labs – which in 2012 received more than a billion dollars – are facing strict monetary caps.
- Fewer skilled lab technicians: There is a serious shortage of lab technicians due to an aging workforce that has not been sufficiently replaced by younger recruits. In fact, nearly 50 per cent of CSMLS member technicians will retire within 10 years, and the growing number of vacancies is already affecting care, especially in rural areas.
So what are your options? What remedies can heal the health and efficiency of your lab operations – and improve your ability to meet delivery hurdles?
Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon for medical testing facilities across Canada.
Vital signs – some positive solutions making a big impact:
- Provinces take steps to centralize and streamline:
a) Quebec’s “Optilab” initiative will centralize all medical laboratories, transporting roughly 70 per cent of test samples to a central testing hub.
b) Saskatchewan will combine its 12 existing health regions into one provincial authority and plans also to consolidate its lab services.
c) In Ontario, several private labs have already rolled out streamlined procedures to reduce pickups, hours and staffing requirements, while at the same time improving turnaround times for some tests.
- New technologies transform testing and reduce volume:
a) Leading-edge automation: Automated systems now allow hundreds of samples to be processed each hour.
b) Do-it-yourself testing: New “self-monitoring” home protocols for chronic patients are reducing the heavy volume of testing in labs. These include blood testing strips used by diabetics and anticoagulation and cholesterol monitoring kits.
c) Smarter databases: Databases are tracking the movements of every specimen, providing labs with real-time updates on the collection, testing, analysis, reporting, storage and elimination phases. Doctors have ever-faster access to results, and in some cases, patients can log in and retrieve their own.
- Couriers roll out specialized medical lab delivery practices:
a) Better protocols: Experienced delivery companies are revising protocols in order to respond more efficiently to highly temperature- and time-sensitive deliveries.
b) Specialized industry knowledge: Delivery companies that have taken extra steps to understand current lab challenges and the need for medical shipment integrity are becoming the shippers of choice. Smart labs are demanding of their courier a proven track record of time-definite pickups from doctors’ offices, health centres or even private residences, and of seamless on-time delivery to the final destination.
c) Reliance on a single courier with cross-Canada services: Many medical labs are benefiting from relying on a single trusted courier: one that can provide exceptional service Canada-wide (including in rural areas) and that ensures nothing falls through the cracks. In return for loyalty, labs are demanding of their preferred shipper a greater level of consistency, more accountability, and a deeper understanding of their priorities and sensitive operations. And they are not being disappointed. These committed relationships are ensuring labs don’t miss a beat.
It’s a serious business – experiencing fast, transformative growth. After all, lab tests are the basis for an estimated 70 per cent of all medical decisions. Timely and accurate results have never been more essential – nor more challenging to deliver. Thankfully, with the help of new cost- and time-saving provincial measures, smarter technologies and specialized courier innovations, medical labs are finding some welcome relief from their test delivery woes – and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.